Is the decrease in quality political journalism a threat to democracy?

Growing up in my household, weekend relaxing was synonymous with reading the newspaper. After the grocery shopping was done I would open whatever food I’d snuck into the trolley when dad wasn’t looking and sit down to read the paper. It was usually a family affair with my parents, brother and sister peeling off their favourite sections of the paper. “Who has the Good Weekend?”… “Claire, did you leave it in the bathroom… again?” Happy days.

Now I usually get my weekend news fix browsing on my iPad or laptop. And not just one source either, I browse lots of different news websites and social media platforms to get my information. And I’m not alone on this one.

At the Sydney Writers Festival on Friday night I attended a talk on creating good political journalism called “Can’t be that Hard”. The topic was based on a recent comment from Julia Gillard to journalists at the National Press Club “Don’t write crap. It can’t be that hard”.

The panel consisted of Malcolm Turnbull, George Megalogenis, Lachlan Harris, Annabel Crabb, Peter Hartcher and Barrie Cassidy (facilitator). They were asked to discuss whether the quality of political reporting had taken a downturn, if the standards should be raised, and the responsibility the media plays in our political culture.

They each offered some unique insight on the topic but one thing that stayed with me was what Malcolm Turnbull had to say. Full disclosure: I’m not totally aligned to any political party, but I am a bit of a fan of Turnbull (and not just because once he replied to me on twitter).

Turnbull described how the entire business model of newspapers has changed. While the growth in online media means there are more readers than ever, commercial news reporting has shifted dramatically and they haven’t been able to monetise the new system effectively yet.

This decrease in revenue has meant companies have a reduction in resources for creating quality journalism. There are less journalists in the field who have to write more content. Journalists’ now have hourly deadlines as opposed to daily ones. There is an increased pressure and decreased pay for journalists. This has lead to a loss of experienced journalists in the field. Research and investigative journalism consumes a lot of time and resources, so cheaper to produce opinion pieces and blogs are used to supplement content. The combination of these factors has resulted in an overall decline of quality reporting.

The decline of journalism is a threat to democracy. Imagine if you took away reporting altogether. Without a local newspaper who would pull up the local government for shoddy roadworks? Without state-based and national news services who would criticise the government’s pension allowance for free air travel, office staff and access to cars and drivers for former state premiers? And WHO would take things politicians say out of context and create a story about nothing?

Ok, so it’s not all completely necessary, however journalism does play a large role in making the government accountable for their actions. The demise of quality reporting is a threat to the very structure of our society.

I had never really considered this issue from this perspective so I wondered what your thoughts on this are.

Do you feel that the quality of political journalism has declined? If so, is this a threat to our democracy? Is the solution to buy more newspapers and/or subscribe to quality online journalism? Are places like the ABC and The Global Mail our only hope for quality journalism? Will they last?

I don’t know the answers, but am interested in what you think. Meanwhile, I’ll just make sure my sister doesn’t take to leaving my iPad in the bathroom.

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16 thoughts on “Is the decrease in quality political journalism a threat to democracy?

  1. You and I are making a habit of going to the same events without any knowledge of the other being there!

    While I agree that with the funding model of Journalism being stripped has lead to a decline in quality in our printed media, the funding model for other forms of reporting ie Television, radio and online have either strengthened or been maintained. I find it hard to believe that the best journalists are those in the print media and good investigating journalists don’t exist in other mediums.

    I have actually vented on this subject in the past on a blog I no longer update (back in may of 2010) http://urbanesquare.blogspot.com.au/2010/05/does-it-annoy-you.html#comment-form I actually stand by a lot of what I said on there, “we are left with a system that is inundated with fame seeking politicians and sitcom sized problems, problems that create headlines, get the politicians in the spotlight and make it appear to the electorate like our elected representatives are earning their keep. This has lead to simple solutions for simple problems and no one watching what is happening to the complex problems. If we want our society to thrive, we need to remove the celebrity of politics, stop allowing politicians to appear in our nightly news bulletins and front page stories as a daily occurrence. Only put them in our papers if what they have done truly warrants the front page, only interview them if they have something of substance to say. We need to stop applauding mediocrity, start applauding them for what they are elected to do, that is, make tough decisions, act on the behalf of their electorate, and work their backsides off for the good of the country and not for the good of the next election. If you want to be a celebrity, go win a Logie, don’t become a politician.”

    • Excellent point and very well said.

      I agree with you about the state of politics. Sometimes it feels like they’re doing so many press conferences/interviews/TV appearances/childrens birthday parties it’s a complete circus. When do they actually sit down and do the work of governing our country? When do they have time to read the facts they need to know in order to make the best decisions for Australia?

      From the sounds of what they were saying on Friday it seemed like often journalists have no other option but to run those ‘fluff’ stories on politicians. They have so many stories to run, and only so many ‘hard’ political stories to fill them with. I’m not defending their methods, but maybe that is part of why it happens.

  2. Scary thought. Though I was technically once a journalist, I never really considered myself one because I knew that the magazines that I worked for were ad-driven ones… so most of the time I felt like I was spinning press releases to get all chummy with clients etc.

    Not exactly investigative, hard-hitting journalism, really.

    Anyway, if you’re writing things to appease advertisers, you’re going to write a lot of crap.
    If you’re writing a blog to attract a lot of traffic, you’re going to write a lot of crap.
    If you’re only going to write things that are extremely interesting and thought-provoking, that’ll take time and you’re not going to have the traffic or the money to sustain your life.

    Geez… I think I just wrote a lot of unhelpful crap right there.

    • Not unhelpful at all, I think you’re reiterating the point some of the panel members made. The point that these news sources are running a business and need to drive traffic and (unfortunately) those stories that people read the most are often more ‘fluffier’ pieces.

      • There’s no solution to the problem, is there? Short of adopting some kinda currency-less communist society… but then journalism would be equally crap because everything would be dictated by a pig named Squealer.

  3. I’m getting a multi-media journalism degree and I sometimes write for the local paper (not anything serious. Saturday I wrote about clowns were part of a reading program for the circus). I have heard both of the arguments above. People don’t want to hear real news, they want to hear interesting news. The people writing news are partly at fault because started writing crap to begin with. This may be a chicken and egg type thing, but if you’re in charge of producing it I think you should be responsible in it’s down fall. I agree with both people have said so far. The newspaper really is in charge of holding people responsible and along with turning politicians into celebrities, we have also turned criminals into them and left the people who actually do good out to dry. What’s the point of doing good if you no one will at least acknowledge or respect it. Think about how much positive change would happen if we would show the good that’s happening in the world. There would at least be a lot less depression, I would think. But, of course it’s not interesting enough, so it doesn’t sell the news. Which is what drewpan talks about.

    • Yes, I see what you’re saying. And the thing about online news is you can see EXACTLY which stories are getting the most hits. And unfortunately it’s usually not the well-researched investigative interesting pieces.

  4. And I want to add that really the news soul purpose is to educate people enough to govern themselves which I think was what you were saying in your article and if people aren’t getting the real information then that’s not going to happen because they’ll be misinformed. So my answer is yes, poor quality journalism is a serious threat to democracy.

    • I think that’s part of what I was saying, but there was also an element that journalists actually play a role in holding governments accountable. If governments aren’t being challenged and questioned all the time they would perhaps operate very differently. Does that make sense?

      • Yeah and I agree, I was just also pointing out the other idea too. Part of the problem is that corruption is becoming the ‘norm’ and nobody really cares anymore. How do you fix apathy? I haven’t a clue.

        • I believe it can be a meuidm, but mostly the comments and conversations you have would be with people in your “blogging neighborhood.”You know your city and the places you frequent, but unless someone turns you on to a new neighborhood your paths always seem to travel in the same channels.Your friends and your cranky neighbors (the trolls) are always on the stoop going back and forth, but the outsider just drives by and doesn’t notice you.The whole echo chamber idea is starting to turn me off blogging. Not to say I don’t like to read my blogroll, but I’m less and less inclined to post. I’ve already pretty much turned my blogspot site into guns and 2A related only but I’ve put up Ah, Shoot! at townhall.com for political stuff. So many people have already posted on the things I feel are important and quite a few are already dead threads by the time I get around to accessing their sites. Why post if no one cares about the subject anymore?Enough of my whining though. It’s great that you are involved with what’s called “serious journalism.” I would love to write for a living or be a commenter, but I fear my views and my character work agin’ it. I have a great face for radio, a body for newspapers, and a voice for silent movies! You won’t see me vlogging!I’m just feeling that I really have nothing of importance to add to any of the conversations of the day. Many bloggers are more eloquent than I am, and they have professional backgrounds that help them gain credibility. I’m just some nobody who likes to complain, and I’m not very good at it anyway. I must not be as I get about four or five readers a day and I get maybe one or two comments a week.You’re more connected to goings on in your area than I am. Your blog has a substance that people can use, my stuff is read and forgotten. As for covering “news” since when do local papers and tv stations do all original reporting? They don’t, so bloggers shouldn’t be looked down on because they seldom report original news. Someone has to start a story somewhere, bloggers are better at in depth now that the news and papers have given up on longer pieces. Blogging is nothing to be ashamed of, perhaps the media fear bloggers?

          • Everyone has a different point of view. Just living in a different area gives you a different point of view. News is very important. It’s very important that people stay informed so they know what’s going on, but people don’t give a crap about it or the truth. They’re happy in their little bubbles, floating around about to get hit by an astroid and they don’t even know. News is important, but different perspectives are interesting. I follow both. The world of blogging has opened my eyes to a lot of different things. Something that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago when I was so closed minded and was only focused on how much I hated myself. I didn’t know what would make me feel better, but feeling that way wasn’t an option so I tried different thing until something clicked. I have no credibility either by the way. I just research different things, relay them, sometimes I throw my own opinion in. I don’t have that many followers either. I do it because I like to learn and because it makes me feel productive. Do I wish other people appreciated my work? Yeah, but do I need them to? Not really. Do what makes you happy and screw everyone else. Maybe take a step back, look at your life, and do something different, make some changes, volunteer. Maybe your comment had nothing to do with any of what I just said, but somehow I feel it’s relavent. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts

  5. I know you are right and hope you are wrong at the same time. The New York Times is like chocolate to me on a Sunday morning. I hope that there will at least be some thoughtful, well-researched newspapers who make it through this transition. I am afraid that the cable news channels with their biased views are not helping at all. Some might say that they are making people more engaged, but I would argue that they are alienating people in the middle, which is an absolute threat to our democracy. Thanks for a thoughtful post!

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